An Invocation

The poem appeared in the London Review of Books on August 6 1992.

Heaney invokes hard-line Scottish poet and communist Hugh MacDiarmid; he recognises a kindred conscience (with the difference that MacDiarmid reacted much more radically in his own Scottish nationalist way against the perceived injustices of government from Whitehall). The three pieces are written in memoriam.

Heaney seeks a gesture of recognition (Incline to me, MacDiarmid, out of Shetland) acknowledging that due regard might be hard come by from a Scot as uncompromising as the landscape around him (Stone-eyed from stone-gazing), a boozer (sobered up), a man of natural ill-temper (thrawn).

Heaney is not seeking the approval of the sociable character who judged, joked and teased: the old vigilante/ Of the chimney corner, having us on, / Setting us off, the drinkers’ drinker.

It is poet MacDiarmid’s endorsement he seeks, that of a confrère: wise, poetic observer of landscape (sage of winds that flout the rock-face); with insights beyond the superficial, akin to a seabird hanging motionless stalled in the sea breeze ; divulger of inner secrets: gatekeeper / Of the open gates behind the brows of birds.

Heaney is not proposing to withdraw any hurtful comparisons he might have made with an arguably less talented individual (take back smart remarks/ About your MacGonagallish propensities / For I do not) . Reaching middle age Heaney has upgraded MacDiarmid’s long-winded con-conformism: I underprized your far-out, blathering genius.


Heaney paints a picture MacDiarmid’s years in the shore-view house. People who did not take to him undervalued his diligence (More intellectual billygoat than scapegoat), his total commitment to what he did (Beyond the stony limits, writing-mad), his enjoyment at being challenged (that pride of being tested) and his choice to live far from the madding crowd: in solitude.

He can envision the reflection of MacDiarmid’s big pale forehead in the window glass creating an optical double horizon illusion Like the earth’s curve on the sea’s curve to the north. He recalls the inner confusion (At your wits’ end then), the hyper-activity (always on the go) the fusion of physical exercise and intellectual pursuit: To the beach and back, taking heady bearings / Between the horizon and the dictionary. A man of rigid opinion Hard-liner on the rock face of the old with an enquiring mind (Questions and answers) for whom Heaney now has his own question (Who is my neighbour?) and to which he has his own inclusive answer: My neighbour is all mankind.


If Heaney cannot achieve the salutation he would like then let there be an affectionate stand-off: if you won’t incline, endure/ At an embraced distance. Let Heaney remember him for what he admired: punching way above his weight (the wee / Contrary stormcock that you always were); a barometer: The weather-eye of a poetry like the weather, in constant flux (A shifting force); his own ‘presence’ whatever its impact (a factor factored in/ Whether it prevails or not); a purposeful reflection of his moment sometimes shared by others: constantly/ A function of its time and place/ And sometimes of our own.

Unfamiliar or alien, MacDiarmid ‘s messages were comprehensible to kindred spirits (Never ( ) Beyond us, even when outlandish), (those of a committed Scottish nationalist) expressed In the accent, in the idiom, in/ The idea like a thistle in the wind. MacDiarmid has bequeathed an enduring legacy of principles: A catechism worth repeating always.

  • Invocation: an incantation generally used to invoke a deity or here a ‘genius’;
  • McDiarmid; Macgonagallish: Heaney introduces Hugh MacDiarmid (1892-1978), Scottish poet and communist, writer of lyrics reflecting on the Scottish ‘predicament’; leader of the Scottish Renaissance; hugely nationalist and anti-English akin to his Welsh counterpart poet RS Thomas: William MacGonnagal (1830-1902), Scottish son of an Irish weaver, disarming cult figure amongst students and lawyers, best known for ‘The Tay bridge Disaster’ but regarded by many as a writer of mediocre poetry;
  • Shetland: (Scottish Gaelic : Sealtainn), also called the Shetland Islands, a subarctic archipelago off the shores of Scotland  lying north-east of mainland Britain . McDiarmid spent periods of his adult life on Whalsay Island;
  • stone-eyed: hard and expressionless;
  • thrawn: perverse; ill-tempered;
  • vigilante: (self-appointed) spokesman for or guardian of what is ‘right’;
  • chimney corner: the warmest, most comfortable personal space in the home or public bar;
  • sage: wise man;
  • flout: show disregard for, mock, scoff at;
  • smart: shades of a ‘smart Alec’, person pretending he knows everything;
  • far-out: non-conformist, unconventional, avant-garde;
  • blathering: talking long-windedly without making very much sense;
  • billygoat: male goat (nanny is the female version);
  • scapegoat: someone expediently blamed for the wrongdoings, mistakes, or faults of everyone else;
  • wits’ end: at a loss as to what to do next; Heaney is also implying the mental decline of age;
  • on the go: constantly active;
  • hard-liner: uncompromising follower of a set of ideas or policies;
  • wee: OE word used chiefly in Scotland and Ireland;
  • contrary: counter-suggestive;
  • stormcock: a stormy petrel (bird) that can cope with extreme weather; also connotations of (‘cock’) a person who dominates others within a group;
  • weather eye: observation of changes or developments;
  • factor in: include as relevant (orig. mathematical);
  • function: dual intent – in mathematics relation or expression involving one or more variables; a variable basic task;
  • outlandish: dual intent  sounding bizarre or unfamiliar; not native, foreign, alien;
  • catechism: summary of Christian religious principles used for religious instruction in the form of questions and answers;
  • There is no doubting the depth of Heaney’s sense of connection to these Scottish men of letters. The first thing he asks me when we meet is whether I have any news of Edwin Morgan, the last surviving writer of that generation. Then he begins to map out the points of contact: reading with Hugh MacDiarmid in Dublin in the 1960s; first meetings with MacCaig and Crichton Smith when he attended an earlier poetry festival in St Andrews in 1973; hosting a visit from George Mackay Brown (a rare privilege, from a man who preferred not to leave Orkney).’ Susan Mansfield in The Scotsman Wednesday 3rd September 2014
  • There is no doubt, too, that the connection was important. He uses the word “camaraderie” more than once. There was a kinship right from the start, he says, between the speech of Scotland and Northern Ireland. He grew up with Burns recitations and Jimmy Shand records, a “sense of at-homeness with that part of the other isle”. “And the Jacobite position! In my part of the world, it wasn’t the Enlightenment, it wasn’t David Hume, it was Bonnie Prince Charlie!(ibid)
  • Heaney commented: “There was a sense of relationship (among the poets], a sense of access, fraternity if you like. When a poet says ‘Och’ instead of ‘Oh dear’ (here he apes a convincing Oxbridge accent], it domesticates the art in a different sort of way. Poetry is always slightly mysterious, and you wonder what is your relationship to it. So to have established writers who could be your neighbours in terms of attitude, speech and so on, that’s corroboration.” (ibid)
  • In 1977, Seamus Heaney visited Hugh MacDiarmid at his home in the Scottish borders, when the great poet and controversialist was in the final phase of life. MacDiarmid had been overlooked by the curators of English literature: compiling the Oxford Book of English Verse, Philip Larkin approved, asking a friend if there was “any bit of MacD that’s noticeably less morally repugnant and aesthetically null than the rest?” Heaney, who has always felt at home with Scots vernacular takes a different line. “I always said that when I met MacDiarmid, I had met a great poet who said ‘Och’. I felt confirmed. You can draw a line from maybe Dundalk across England, north of which you say ‘Och’, south of which you say ‘Well, dearie me’. In that monosyllable, there’s a world view, nearly.” From a Guardian interview with James Campbell 27 May 2006.
  • MacDiarmid,” he says, “was a major European poet who said ‘och’ and smoked a pipe and sounded like your farmer cousins.” He got to know him in the 1960s when Claddagh Records was recording poets reading their own work. When “half-tight”, he recalls, he and fellow Belfast-based poets, including Michael Longley, would chant lines from MacDiarmid’s poem With The Herring Fishers.

Once, in the 1960s, MacDiarmid visited Ireland and despite being instructed to keep him away from the drink, Heaney, who felt this was no way to treat a poet of such stature, stopped the car in which they were travelling and bought him a bottle of whisky. On another occasion he visited MacDiarmid at Brownsbank, his cottage near Langholm, accompanied among others by Trevor Royle, then literature director of the Scottish Arts Council and now the Sunday Herald’s associate editor. We drank a lot of whisky that afternoon,” says Heaney. “I always remember when we were going to get up out of our seats MacDiarmid was sitting quite spry, saying: ‘Can you manage?’” In Dublin in 1967, when MacDiarmid was 75, Heaney recalls him chasing his pregnant wife Marie round a table with who knows what in mind. “I can’t see myself chasing anybody,” Heaney says with mock mordancy. Interview for Herald Scotland 26th Oct 2009

  • Heaney is a meticulous craftsman using combinations of vowel and consonant to form a poem that is something to be listened to.
  • the music of the poem: twelve assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhymes , or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text:

  • alliterative effects allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies:
  • the first two lines of (1)for example, brings together labio-dental fricative [f] a cluster of alveolar plosives[t] interspersed with nasal [n] and [m];
  • it is well worth teasing out the sound clusters for yourself to admire the poet’s sonic engineering:
  • Consonants (with their phonetic symbols) can be classed according to where in the mouth they occur
  • Front-of-mouth sounds voiceless bi-labial plosive [p] voiced bi-labial plosive [b]; voiceless labio-dental fricative [f] voiced labio-dental fricative [v]; bi-labial nasal [m]; bilabial continuant [w]
  • Behind-the-teeth sounds voiceless alveolar plosive [t] voiced alveolar plosive [d]; voiceless alveolar fricative as in church match [tʃ]; voiced alveolar fricative as in judge age [dʒ]; voiceless dental fricative [θ] as in thin path; voiced dental fricative as in this other [ð]; voiceless alveolar fricative [s] voiced alveolar fricative [z]; continuant [h] alveolar nasal [n] alveolar approximant [l]; alveolar trill [r]; dental ‘y’ [j] as in yet
  • Rear-of-mouth sounds voiceless velar plosive [k] voiced velar plosive [g]; voiceless post-alveolar fricative [ʃ] as in ship sure, voiced post- alveolar fricative [ʒ] as in pleasure; palatal nasal [ŋ] as in ring/ anger.

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